In the summer of 1991, Darcy Frey — then a 29-year-old freelance writer — ventured into the Coney Island projects, looking for a story. He’d end up spending a season with Abraham Lincoln High School’s storied basketball program and meeting a quartet of marvelous, nearly doomed teenagers — including a 14-year-old phenom named Stephon Marbury.
“I thought, Do I hang out for a year at a single playground? A floor of a housing project?” Frey says of the early steps in reporting his classic nonfiction book The Last Shot, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. “Then I thought — and it wasn’t that original an idea: a high school basketball team. That’d give me the access, and the arc of a season, and the potential for drama. Slowly, I realized there was this whole universe — it was high-stakes, really huge, and it was eye-opening. But I didn’t think at first that I would be writing some exposé of the exploitation in basketball. I just wanted to spend a year in a neighborhood with some kids.”
The one-season, one-team structure is the most elemental form of the sports book. Its classics — David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink, Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights — are many. They spotlight a particular sports community and use that focus to tell us something about American society at large. On first glance, it seems remarkable Frey was able to find such an insular world within the biggest city in the United States. But Coney Island, as he writes in The Last Shot, is not New York City: “Surrounded on three sides by water, and cut off on the fourth by the great ethnic divide of Brighton Beach, the Coney Island peninsula feels like a separate territory, as removed from the rest of New York as Guam.” The neighborhood’s pitfalls — marked back then by the ever-encroaching drug trade — were omnipresent. And as anyone who’s ever fallen asleep on a Brooklyn-bound subway can tell you, Coney Island is the end of the line.
New York City basketball is a fascinating, Byzantine world, with a cast of institutions and legends all its own. But Frey’s trick was cooking that down to a universal core. You don’t have to know the Gauchos or The Goat or Pee Wee Kirkland to understand that an impoverished community would cling fiercely to its reputation as a cradle for hoops talent. It was about pride and hope represented singularly, in Coney Island, by basketball. For Frey’s subjects, it seemed, the only way forward was through the courts.
“I got into it less so with knowledge of sports, and more with interest in the environment,” Frey says. Still, “I was a big basketball fan.” Well, clearly. Throughout the book, Frey captures the beauty of freewheeling kids discovering the heights of their abilities. And that kicks off with a virtuosic midgame scene that takes place at a favored Coney Island court named The Garden:
Standing under his own basket, Stephon lets fly with a long, improbable pass that Corey, running full speed, somehow manages to catch and dunk in one balletic leap. The game is called on account of total pandemonium: players and spectators are screaming and staggering around the court — knees buckling, heads held in astonishment … Stephon laughs and points to the rim, still shuddering from its run-in with Corey’s fists. “Yo, cuz!” he yells. “Make it bleed!” Then he raises his arms jubilantly and dances a little jig, rendered momentarily insane by the sheer, giddy pleasure of playing this game to perfection.
We get to know our cast of characters. Tchaka Shipp, a 6-foot-8 big man, is the physically gifted galoot, oozing enthusiasm, unabashedly goofy, and just scratching the surface of his potential. Darryle Flicking, a sweet-shooting guard, is the moody overachiever, obsessed with getting his grades high enough to earn a Division I college scholarship and sail out of Brooklyn forever.1 Corey Johnson is the lackadaisical smartass, the game coming so naturally to him that he barely gives it a second thought. And Corey’s skinny, boastful, barely postadolescent cousin Stephon, scion of the gifted but so-far-failed Marbury basketball clan, is the future — will he be the Coney Island product who finally cracks the pros?2
The previous year, as juniors, the crew3 had led Lincoln to the PSAL city title.4 They were accustomed to seeing their names in print, from recruitment newsletters to the tabloid dailies to the New York Times. “‘I’m gonna come every day, I’m gonna come to class,’ that was something new,” Frey says of spending so much time with them. “But that a reporter would want to hang out actually wasn’t alien.”
On an average day, Frey would arrive at Lincoln around 2:30 p.m., between the kids’ last class and the end of the team’s mandatory study hall. He’d hang around afterward for practice or games, and then he’d spend the rest of the afternoon with them. “It’s an incredibly inefficient process,” Frey laughs. “I spent hundreds of hours for every 30 minutes of material I ended up using. Just crazy amounts of time. Many, many days of utter boredom and repetition. But that day-to-day immersion — it’s the only way the project works.”
He’d hang around Corey’s brother’s barbershop. He’d buy them Quarter Pounders from McDonald’s and give them rides home in his old junker, a brown Toyota Starlet. “A lot of the best reporting came from when we were driving around,” Frey remembers. Eventually, the kids trusted him. They let him into their homes. They introduced him to their sisters and mothers.
“A piece of long-form journalism, you’re watching events unfold in real time: It’s an uncontrollable experiment,” Frey explains. “And that’s really scary because … what if nothing interesting happens? It’s destabilizing. But if you’re open to following events where they go, something will surprise you.”
And what revealed itself was how the hope of a future engineered by basketball — a college scholarship and maybe a crack at the NBA — could feel like a chest-crushing weight.
Early in the book, Tchaka joyously announces that he has cracked 700 on the SATs — the minimum needed then for Division I eligibility. For his teammates, that 700 becomes a dark and looming cloud. We hear of Darryle cramming with flash cards and textbooks, as fanatically dutiful about test prep as he is about perfecting his gorgeous jump shot. Mature beyond his years, he dreams of using basketball to pay for a degree in nursing. And yet, for all Darryle’s smarts and dedication, he repeatedly comes up short on the test. Meanwhile, Corey, who has an easy grace with girls and considers himself a writer and artist first and a basketball player second, can barely be taxed with trying in class.
And then there are the Marburys. Stephon’s older brothers were as talented as anyone who ever killed it on the Coney Island courts, yet their careers all flamed out before they fulfilled their potential.5 And then you begin to understand the pressure on Stephon and any other young talent shouldering the burden of nearly impossible expectations.
Although Frey had planned to follow the kids through graduation, his reporting was cut short when he lost access to the players. Stephon’s father, Don, saw Frey as an exploitative interloper who aimed to make money off his kid. Darryle’s mother deemed Frey a distraction her son could not afford. (Frey wasn’t alone in this regard — at one point, on orders from mom, Darryle’s girlfriend was also jettisoned.) And the NCAA eventually decreed that Frey could no longer sit in on Tchaka’s recruiting visits. Fortunately, they wised up only after Frey got to watch then-Providence coach Rick Barnes attempt to lure Tchaka to the Friars with magic. And yes, Barnes actually performed the quarter-behind-the-ear trick.
“There was a big crisis in the project,” Frey says now. “I stopped going to Lincoln every day. I thought the book was dead.” He began working with Harper’s to turn the material he had into a magazine article. His editors at the magazine kept prodding him for further details from his personal experience: “They said, ‘You keep talking about getting kicked out of Coney Island — what’s that all about?’ I started adding more first-person stuff, and a little bit about my shifting understanding. I realized the obstacles I ran into were sort of the same obstacles these kids were running into: In terms of the hypocrisy of the NCAA, in terms of a desperate need for money, in terms of the suspicion, and the anxiety about being exploited. I had a clichéd idea that I was gonna be writing about victory — about kids triumphing over their environment by dint of their talent and hard work. It took me a while to see that. And that’s when it switched between what I thought I was gonna be writing and what I did end up having to write.”
The result was a powerful and unblinking portrait of the players’ lives and a college basketball system built to exploit them. To varying degrees, readers witnessed Corey, Darryle, Tchaka, and Stephon get caught in the gears of a machine ostensibly meant to catapult them forward. But even if the NCAA treated the players as faceless commodities, The Last Shot refused to do so. The book offered a view of the kids through a humane — and often unflinchingly honest — lens.
The Coney Island community’s reaction to the book was mixed and passionate. Some applauded its unromantic portrayal of the city game; others pronounced that the neighborhood had been betrayed. “There were some people who felt like I had written a book calling the best players in Coney Island a bunch of losers,” Frey recalls. “But I never defended it, and I didn’t want to. I had my say in the book. If people want to be pissed off, they had the right to be pissed off. The book tells the story that needs to be told. My allegiance as a reporter was to tell the truth, especially when you’re writing as intimately as I was writing about these kids. I wrote a book that talks about a system that was conspiring to make kids lose.”
The Last Shot’s legacy grew after its 10th-anniversary rerelease, when Frey revisited his subjects and discovered a startling range of outcomes.
Stephon, of course, was earning eight figures with his hometown Knicks. Corey missed 700 on the SAT by 10 points, then washed out of a Texas junior college; he was back in Coney Island, still an aspiring writer. Tchaka had two unhappy seasons at Seton Hall before a car accident kneecapped his basketball future; when Frey caught up with him, Tchaka was living in Las Vegas with his fiancée, doing electrical work for $8.50 an hour. And Darryle had torn up juco and Division II schools before losing his way. Disconnected from his wife and young son in California, he ended up homeless.
“In January 1999,” Frey writes in the postscript, “in an incident that many of his friends say they believe was intentional, he was walking along some train tracks next to the beach in San Clemente, listening to his Walkman, when he was struck from behind by an Amtrak passenger train. He was thrown 75 feet and died instantly. He was 26.”
In the book, Don Marbury Sr. is a controversial figure: In exchange for access to his son, he requests compensation. Frey at first explains this would be a breach of ethics, before deciding that Don — feeling understandably vulnerable to exploitation — may well be right in insisting on a fair exchange. He then attempts to set up a contract that would share profits from the book with the kids, but is ultimately blocked by NCAA regulations on amateur athletes. And Don, presumably, continues to view Frey as another would-be leech.
And so when I emailed Stephon about the book, it wasn’t surprising that he replied — from China, where he recently won another title with the Beijing Ducks — with a blunt message: “The book is false. He did it to make money off of young black kids in the hood. That’s all I have to say about it.”
Tchaka Shipp, newly married, now lives in Houston, where he works early mornings as a UPS package handler and afternoons as a high school English teacher. His ex-fiancée, the mother of his 12-year-old son, still lives in Las Vegas. I speak to him on the phone one day after school, and find him open and relaxed.
Shipp warmly recounts Frey trailing him at school, to the summer camps, and on the recruiting visits. “He was a very good guy,” Shipp tells me again and again. “A very good guy.” If I’d spoken to him five or 10 years earlier, it’s possible this stuff wouldn’t roll off the tongue so breezily. It can’t be easy to transition from theoretical pro-sports riches to the banality of regular life. But now, Shipp speaks plainly: “Basketball allowed me to get my degree and learn about the world. I have a credential from basketball.” And when I start to ask if he still thinks about the NBA, he cuts me off: “Of course! Of course! Within yourself, every now and then, you say, ‘I was on the same level — I could have been there. I could have played with those guys.’”
He takes me back to a time described in the book: taking the SATs, trying to get your grades together, playing your balls off, and hoping the scholarship offers will follow. “You make sure that everything is A-plus so that you can get to the next level,” he says. “And, uh, it’s the same now. You know? We’re trying to use what we’ve acquired. To get to the next level.” No one will write about Shipp’s attempts to move up within the Houston Independent School District. But that doesn’t mean he’s not plugging away just like when he was working toward that NBA dream.
Before he hangs up, I ask for a favorite basketball memory, and he quickly obliges: It was against Grady High School, Lincoln’s rival. Grady was running a furious full-court press that game. Lincoln’s ball handlers helped break it time after time and found Tchaka, who went off for 20 points and 20 rebounds. “Stephon ran through it like it was a maze,” Shipp remembers with some residual awe. “And at the end of one press, he gave me the pass, and I dunked it backward for the and-1. That was a big game. We still talk about it to this day.”
One winter afternoon I take the Q train to meet Corey Johnson in Coney Island. Twenty years after The Last Shot was published, Johnson is 39, with a son who’s a computer programming major at Manchester College in Connecticut. But in his tailored sweatpants and Jordan XIIs, he still looks trim and fleet and ready for the court. In fact, as we walk down Surf Avenue toward the housing projects, he waves dismissively at the gray, crusted snowbanks, pining for the thaw that would signal the beginning of pickup season. And he’s as voluble as ever.
“Darcy showed up in my junior year, after the first three seasons of the media attention and the newspaper people,” Johnson recalls, “and I just felt like, ‘Wow, you showed up already? You early on the schedule! Great, let’s talk.’” Corey dreamed about a future in the arts and plotted to use the book to launch his career in publishing. He treated Frey “like a brother,” making sure he felt safe, taking him around the neighborhood, introducing him to everyone. “He’d be giving guys high fives and stuff,” Johnson laughs, “so of course I’d tease him: ‘Hey, don’t get too comfortable! Take us to McDonald’s, or else!’”
Corey saw Frey as an opportunity, but also as a fellow traveler — another writer. For all his basketball talent, Corey never fully embraced the game. That was tough to accept for the people around him. For a Coney Island kid not to dream about the NBA was strange enough; for that same kid to be a starter for Lincoln was outright bizarre. “I was looking for encouragement for the writing and the arts,” Johnson says, “and it only came as a result of being on the basketball court.”
He recalls one game his sophomore year, when a broken play forced him to improvise and led him to dunk on the other team’s big man: “The place is packed, the crowd is going crazy, the girls are calling my name and shit.” And in the middle of all that, he zoned out and had a private conversation with himself: Who are you? What are you doing? Are you this guy everyone’s chanting for? Finally, his older brother shouted at him from the stands, and Corey snapped out of his reverie, but not before assuring his inner self: “Don’t worry. I didn’t forget about you. I still got you.”6
As we walk past a fellow halfheartedly pushing prepaid “burner” phones, Johnson points to a weathered brick building, as drab and unassuming as the rest of the block. This is where Darryle climbed to the roof and threatened to jump. In The Last Shot, Frey explains that a physical altercation with his girlfriend led Darryle to believe his college prospects were now nonexistent, and that his future was kaput. Eventually, police arrived and helped talk him down.
Now, Johnson recalls how terrifying the situation was. He was pulled out of his first-period class, then hustled over to the building, where he looked up at his best friend at the lip of the roof.7 “He was sitting right up there, on top of that edge, his back to it,” Johnson says. “Literally, his arms was holding him up from falling off the roof. And I’m thinking, thank God for those workouts.”
We turn in to a courtyard and come across The Garden. The sun has started to drop fast, a nasty chill has settled into our bones, and the court is half-covered with dripping mounds of filthy snow — all of which makes the court’s glass backboards and snapback rims, here, among these worn-down apartment buildings, feel all the more incongruous.
Johnson recalls past games, both here and at the real Garden, expertly pantomiming spin moves and killer crossovers and 360 layups. He remembers the first time he dunked: “I put the guy to sleep, drove right by him, jumped in the air, finished with two hands. I was like 13. Everybody was like, ‘Ohhhhh!!! Yooooo!!!! Where did you just come from!’”8
Basketball offered a lot back then — protection, strength, respect. “If he got talent, if he got a chance to make it, don’t mess with him,” Johnson says, explaining the neighborhood ethos. “Of course, there were drug dealers betting our games, but we were too young to know.” And in a neighborhood where for most people the sky was well beyond the limit, the sport offered a path. The problem for gifted ballplayers like Corey and Darryle and Tchaka, however, was that the game felt like the only path. That’s the kind of claustrophobic environment that led Darryle to believe that without a scholarship, his life was effectively over.
Johnson knows the lure of the NBA is undeniable. Even though they’ve lost touch, he’s proud of his cousin Stephon, and proud of how this community made Stephon stronger. He recalls how the neighborhood guys used to make Steph play against a man named Key Free; he was the same size as Stephon, but he “used to go hard,” making it impossible for Marbury to slack, even in pickup games. These were the fires in which the future Starbury’s skills were forged.
But it’s with some pain that Johnson recalls the times Marbury returned to the neighborhood to shoot commercials or hold charity events. “Three tractor trailers of sneakers and T-shirts is cool, but can you build a community center? Somewhere for swimming, after-school programming, basketball, whatever? Put some money in so that guys won’t have it as hard as you? They still playing at P.S. 188, the junior high. I mean, Steph, then Sebastian [Telfair], then Lance [Stephenson], and all these years later there’s still no sight of these things.”
It might seem unfair to call out Marbury — building something like a community center means navigating city bureaucracies and managing a staff to run the place. It’s a lot different from giving away Starbury shoes and Thanksgiving turkeys. Johnson’s point, though, isn’t really directed at Coney Island’s proud sons. It’s directed at the community that has managed to create them but not develop itself.
The neighborhood’s enduring overemphasis on breeding basketball talent — at the detriment, Johnson believes, of developing other skills — has led to what, exactly? A neighborhood obsessed with basketball and dangerously little room to imagine much else. “The mentality was so limited,” Johnson says. “I always wanted for people to feel like they had options.”
The book still feels alive to Johnson. “I remember everything like it was yesterday,” he says. He often finds himself praising Frey’s achievements in The Last Shot while, almost in the same breath, wishing it had captured an even deeper portrait of “these kids’ thoughts — why were they doing what they were doing?”
Above all, what Johnson still can’t believe is how The Last Shot failed to open doors for him. He says he never wanted money, but he was convinced this would be his ticket to another world. He’d hoped to travel around the country, meeting with high school students from neighborhoods not much different from Coney Island, telling his story and guiding others. It never happened.
“I was so looking forward to doing that,” he says. “I was ready to go! I had my outfits and everything. I felt so proud. Not even knowing that I was gonna be kept away from it.” Johnson is careful not to blame Frey, but being left out of much of the book’s promotion stings him to this day.
“It’s a major story, getting a lot of attention, and I wanna be a part of it and I don’t have a right to?” he says. “It’s my real life! And that’s why I feel like it was written just to make money. All those that were involved with it — all the suit-and-tie guys that didn’t put in no work — they got payouts. It was written for them.”
Frey says he doesn’t blame Johnson for feeling this way. “I sympathize hugely with Corey,” he says. “After the book came out, I tried to put him in touch with some people who I thought could help him as a writer, and I sent a book manuscript of his to one of them; and whenever I was asked to do an interview about the book, I’d always ask if they’d like one of the players to join me in the studio. Corey did appear with me on a TV interview and another radio interview. I also introduced Corey and Tchaka to Arthur Agee, and for a while there was some talk about all three of them starting a line of sports apparel … But over time, after the book had been out for a while, I got fewer and fewer requests for interviews, and I can imagine that that was disappointing for Corey.”
Johnson and I loop back toward Nathan’s Hot Dogs now, down Coney Island’s famous boardwalk, which is empty in the dead of winter. It’s nighttime, and as we trudge through the snow, past shuttered food shacks and the neon rainbow lights of the dormant Parachute Jump, we crunch our feet into the tracks laid down by a security guard’s ATV.
Johnson has continued to explore creative paths — he focuses more on photography these days — but he supports himself by working with his father, brother, and cousins in their plumbing, carpentry, and electrical businesses. Of The Last Shot, he says: “Until I find myself somewhere being recognized, where I can actively participate and apply this book to student-athletes’ lives, I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with it.”
As he puts it at another point: “As much work as we put into basketball — it owes us something.”
His grievances, as I understand them, come down to this: To have your life story used as fodder, without palpable recompense, feels exploitative. No matter the countless hours Frey spent in Coney Island with Corey and Darryle and Tchaka and Stephon, no matter the beautiful, painstaking tribute to their lives he created, no matter how illuminating The Last Shot is for readers who’d never otherwise understand the culture, to Corey, it doesn’t make up for what happened in the end. The author moved on and took the story with him. It’s a conflict that cuts to the heart of nonfiction — what Janet Malcolm was getting at when she called the field of journalism “morally indefensible.”
Standing here now with Johnson, a tape recorder jutting from my shivering, ungloved hand, I know I’m about to be guilty of the same sins. It’s a plain reality of the process: You show up, you ask people to tell you everything, and then you leave.
But for writers and their subjects, the emotions that accompany that process aren’t that simple.
“It was my first book,” Frey recalls. “It was the first time I’d ever spent a year with people and then left their lives. We got close. I don’t flatter myself to think that I [affected them] when I left. But for me, when I stopped, when I left Coney Island — that left a big vacuum in my life.”
Back in Coney Island, in front of the Stillwell Avenue subway station — where I’ll catch my train home and where my stiff fingers and numb face will begin to thaw — Johnson continues to ping between stories from the old days and his plans for the future. He leaves me with a message to the world: “The story’s about me, man! And it’s not like I’m lost somewhere, hooked on drugs. I’m alive and well! What’s up!”